Fort de Buade Building Poses Ongoing Risk to Collection; Awaits Roof Repair

Published in 2014 by The St. Ignace News

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Fort de Buade Museum’s collection includes artifacts and historical items ranging from pre-Columbian arrowheads and spear points and Colt revolvers to pottery and mid- 20th century powwow regalia. While some items reflect the diverse tastes and extensive travels of Dr. Donald “Doc” Benson, an orthodontist from Lansing who assembled the collection, much of it also represents the history of the Straits area.

Dr. Benson died in 2005 and his family donated the collection to the City of St. Ignace, but with the stipulation that the city purchase the building that houses it. The Sault Ste. Marie Tribe of Chippewa Indians donated the money for the building, but deterioration of the structure now threatens the contents. The downtown building awaits a city inspection and repair of its leaking roof, among other concerns.

“The collection should not be in this building,” said Bill Peek, museum curator and president of the Michilimackinac Historical Society. “There’s no way to regulate the environment. We have a dehumidifier going, but that’s the best we can do with the funding we have. It’s not good for historical artifacts.”

Wooden objects are in jeopardy because of repeated freezing and heating, cloth items are spotted with mold and stains, and metal is subject to rust, he said. Visual images in the collection could suffer from light and water damage.

“Basically, everything is at risk in this environment.”

The building was formerly an automobile repair shop, Wing’s Garage. There is no insulation or heat in the area where the collection is stored and the original asphalt floors of the garage remain to this day. They are particularly obvious in the exhibit portion of the museum, where the floors are uneven with bumps and dips.

“The asphalt gets very cold and remains cold for a long time,” Mr. Peek said. “It moves and heaves and swells. We’re not even sure the building has a proper foundation.”

The roof leaks badly when it rains, and the building is prone to infestations, most recently, bees.

He has to clean the cases out regularly to remove dead bugs from the inside and bat urine from the outside. Bird nests remain in the ceiling from an earlier infestation.

The building has no humidity controls. The staff placed four dehumidifiers in the exhibit portion of the museum and do their best to keep the doors shut. The dehumidifiers accumulate up to 10 gallons of water a day. Small containers of silica desiccant in the display cases are also employed.

Ideally, each case would be hermetically sealed with individual temperature and humidity controls, but desiccants and dehumidifiers are the best that Fort de Buade can do on its budget, Mr. Peek said.

“It should be between 45% and 50% humidity, and constant,” he said. “But, as it is, the collection goes through extremes.”

Last year, humidity and light filters, which protect the artwork from the effects of harsh indoor lighting, were added with a grant from the Mackinac Island Community Foundation.

In 2010, Midwest Art Conservation Center funded its associate director, Elisha Redman, for a professional conservation assessment.

The report lists insulation and an efficient heating and cooling system among the top priorities, but Mr. Peek says there is simply no way the museum could afford to make the recommended renovations.

With tribal funds, the City of St. Ignace purchased the building and museum gift shop for $500,000 in 2007 and leased operation of the museum to the Michilimackinac Historical Society. The tribe awarded $710,388 over six years to cover purchase, maintenance, and some operational costs until 2012.

The lease, renewed last year, stipulates that the historical society will operate the museum, workroom, Sweet Grass Gallery, gift shop, bathrooms, heritage center, and artifacts, for $1 a month in rent. According to the lease, the historical society is responsible for maintenance and any repairs up to $500.

In addition to the 2,000-plus artifacts owned by the city, the historical society also displays its own McKenney and Hall lithograph collection at the museum.

The St. Ignace News reported January 24, 2013, that the city kept $40,000 of the tribe’s grant money “for building repairs and other major expenses related to the museum.” Any money held in reserve for Fort de Buade repairs is not in a separate account, but would currently be in the city’s general fund, said City Clerk Renee Vonderwerth.

“If they need repairs done, we have to do them, though; that’s part of the lease agreement,” she said. “We’re responsible.”

When the lease was renewed, it stipulated the historical society undertake an inventory to comply with the Native American Graves Protection and Repatriation Act of 1990. The museum submitted the inventory in July 2013.

To be fully compliant, an expert must be brought in to identify which items are eligible for repatriation to Indian nations, if they want them. Because the city owns the collection, it is responsible for this next step, Mr. Peek said.

The museum operation is funded through fundraisers, admissions donations, memberships, and grants. Museum staff has had difficulty demonstrating sustainability when applying for grants, although a recent commitment of $2,000 a year for five years from the DDA will help, said Mary Beth Powers, the Fort de Buade director.

The DDA provides $30,000 a year to the other downtown museum, the Museum of Ojibwa Culture, which it owns.

Ms. Powers and gallery and gift shop manager Debora Coxe are the museum’s only full-time seasonal staff. There are three parttime staff in the gift shop, and Mr. Peek volunteers his time. Other volunteers, including members of the historical society and museum members, help with special events and activities.

Mr. Peek has a major in geography with a cartography specialization and a minor in history from Michigan State University and has always been passionate about the subject. He’s also visited museums around the world, studied intently on his own, and tries to incorporate effective display elements he’s seen into Fort de Buade’s exhibits.

Ms. Powers’ position is primarily business management and Mrs. Coxe’s is a combination of event coordination and communication.

During the July 7 city council meeting, Ms. Powers said the building’s roof leaks. A meeting of the city’s Fort de Buade Committee was called for at that time, but has yet to meet. The roof has also yet to be inspected by the city.